Bronx School Does 'Whatever It Takes' To Reach Students
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now we turn to another story about new beginnings. In this case, the launch of a new public high school. On this program, we've talked a lot about education reform and the various approaches schools around the country have been taking to improve the quality of education offered especially to minority and underprivileged students.
Over the past decade, New York City has opened a series of small schools in an effort to give more attention to students who might otherwise fall through the cracks. One of those schools is the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, which opened in 2005. With a class of just over 100 ninth graders and a small team of teachers, Principal Edward Tom made it his mission to make a school that defies the odds.
Mr. EDWARD TOM (Principal, Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics): Students in this community that are like you, Latino, African-American, Asian, people that look like you and I, all right, they're going to expect excuses from us. And we can't give the world excuses.
MARTIN: Edward Tom and his first class of students are the subject of a new documentary called "Whatever It Takes" and it airs tonight on the PBS series "Independent Lens." And we're joined now by Principal Edward Tom. He's with us from Maine Public Broadcasting in Portland. Also joining us is the film's director Christopher Wong, and he's with us from NPR West in Culver City. Welcome to you both, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. TOM: Thank you for having us.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER WONG (Director, "Whatever It Takes): Great to be here.
MARTIN: So, Chris, let me start with you. How did you get the idea for this film? You knew Edward.
Mr. WONG: Yeah. I had known Edward for a long time when we both worked in New York City. And fast forward many, many years to 2005 and Ed calls me, hey, I'm starting this new school in the South Bronx. Now, I knew that he had made a big transition from corporate life to education. But now that he was going to become a principal in the South Bronx, I said this is the project that I was made to tell. And so I just embarked on it right after he told me.
MARTIN: But why did you like it? Why were you so interested? Are you just intrinsically interested in education, or did you just think, gee, this is funny, my friend, Ed, who always wanted to be rich has now, for some reason, decided to become the principal of a high school?
Mr. WONG: Yeah. Really, I mean, not that I had no interest in education, but I didn't know anything about it. My real interest in the beginning was, you know, can this person that I know who is not just a friend, but an incredible person in terms of always exceeding whatever he does, can he, a Chinese-American man, make it in the South Bronx in a place where New York City public schools are supposed to be terrible, where Chinese-American people aren't supposed to be very accepted. I just felt like there was so much drama in the story and so much potential for change because I knew that Ed, you know, when he sets his mind to something, he usually accomplishes it.
MARTIN: Well, to that point, though, the film makes a very interesting point, Ed Tom, that how you did start out you're very candid how you started out thinking, you know, I really want to be rich. And you were, I don't want to say you're far down that path, but you had a very successful career working in retail for some high end department stores. What made you decide to throw it all over to become a high school principal?
Mr. TOM: Oh, wow, I've been asked that question by many of my closest friends. It's just, I didn't feel that I was actually doing something that I was created to do. I wasn't called to do that. And I was dating my wife at the time and she challenged me. She said, you know, the only time that I see a smile on your face is when Friday night rolls around and you're actually diligently working on your lesson plan for Sunday school teaching.
I taught Sunday school to ninth graders in church. And she said, why don't you just do a career change and become a teacher? And I remembered my reaction to her, I basically laughed in her face and said, wow, you know, I studied business so that I can retire at the age of 40, you know. We know that educators are not well compensated, how is that going to happen?
MARTIN: Well, so, what happened? You just thought what?
Mr. TOM: So, you know, this is nothing short of a miracle. I mean, I prayed upon it and I said, listen, if I'm going to take a week's vacation from Saks and if I get a teaching assignment and a license within that week, then I'll take that as a clear sign that I should be moving on. And sure enough, in three days, Michel, I received a temporary license to teach in a high needs content area, mathematics at the high school level. And I got a job offer in three days.
MARTIN: Which is a little scary to me that you got a job offer after we'll take it as a sign. We'll take it that the steps are ordered as indeed that you said. And so then you got the idea to open this school. And as Chris pointed out, here you are, you're Chinese-American, your students are 93 percent African-American and Latino, 80 percent qualified for reduced free school lunch. It's not the easiest neighborhood to start a school. And so, why that school? Why in that neighborhood?
Mr. TOM: You know, I said, you know, what I know well that I feel that I can actually replicate in a meaningful way? Well, I taught at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in East Harlem. And I said, well, why don't I replicate a highly successful model that exists right now that I'm very familiar with? And I decided to put a high performing, unscreened, unspecialized school in the heart of the South Bronx where, you know, people in society say that African-Americans and Latinos can't handle higher level math and science.
And it was really my intention and my mission to disprove that very point, that it's not about ethnicity and it's not about socioeconomics, it's about putting together an incredibly caring and loving team of professionals that does whatever it takes, no pun intended.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a new documentary that premieres tonight on PBS. It's called "Whatever It Takes." It's the story of the first year in the life of new principal Edward Tom in a small school that he's leading in the Bronx. We're joined by Principal Edward Tom and filmmaker Christopher Wong.
Now, Chris, you had access to some very tough moments in the life of the school and the principal and the students there. I just want to play a short clip of a moment that Principal Tom is having with a student who's struggling.
(Soundbite of film, "Whatever It Takes")
Unidentified Man: I can't do it by myself. And I don't like to be set up to fail, man.
Mr. TOM: You're not going to make me give up on you. I ain't going to give up on you. You have too much potential, you're too damn smart and you're going. So, if you don't help me and you fall through the cracks, young man, that's failing. You know what I'm saying? I'm failing because you are personal to me. I made a promise to you. I'm getting you into college whether you like it or not.
MARTIN: Well, he didn't. He didn't make it. What do you think about that?
Mr. TOM: You know, it's the harsh reality of the world that we live in. I've learned after five years being in the job as a principal that there are going to be times where we can't save every single child. And not every single child will be graduating on time or within six years. But we should be obligated and feel obligated to do all that we can to try and get all of them through and to do whatever it takes to make that happen.
MARTIN: Well, how do you hold onto that? Because that's one of the things that I'm interested in. There's been this debate in education for years. You know, on the one hand there is this, look, it's what happens at school that matters and teachers make all the difference. The school environment makes a difference and there are other people who say, look, you know what? The home environment, I just can't compensate for that. You obviously believe a little bit of both, but how do you hold onto that?
Mr. TOM: You know, there are times where we accept the reality that we are the parent, you know, not only are we the parent, but we are the social worker, we are the psychologist. We are also the physician, you know, we look for health care for our children. Unfortunately, some of our parents are not equipped to be parents, or they're not, they just don't know how to. So I don't necessarily blame them. I just feel that some of them need better training. And sometimes when there is a deficiency with a particular child, the school has to step in, I feel.
MARTIN: Chris, to that end, one of the students that you focus on a great deal in the film is a young woman named Sharifa(ph). Tell us a little bit about her and why you chose to focus on her story.
Mr. WONG: Yeah. Sharifa was definitely a special case. Every time we talked to the principal, every time we talked to one of the teachers, they would say, oh, we just love Sharifa and she has so much potential. But we also saw that she was tremendously troubled. And when we finally were given the privilege of going home with her and seeing what her family life was like, then we got to see, you know, the many years of foster care, the many years of having to care for her own siblings. Her mother, you know, being formerly addicted to drugs. There were so many pressures on Sharifa, and still, she was going about it with a good attitude and she seemed to be making it.
MARTIN: But, again, here's a story, and Principal Tom, tell me, how do you think we should think about Sharifa? Because on the one hand, it does seem as though you try whatever it takes to help this young woman. And she seemed to want to survive and to thrive and to give it her all, but she was not the story of triumph that a lot of people would perhaps be hoping for, at least at that point in the film. So, what lesson should we draw from Sharifa's story?
Mr. TOM: Well, just that, you know, I'm encouraging my fellow educators to never give up on a child because we never know what it is that we do or say to a child that'll change them and turn them around. There are many, many Sharifas out there. You know, if we managed to save or protect and care for one of them, we will save one at a time, a child at a time, and the world is a better place because of that. And we should never give up hope.
MARTIN: Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. TOM: Thank you very much.
Mr. WONG: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: Edward Tom is a principal of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics in New York City. And Christopher Wong is the producer and director of the new PBS documentary, "Whatever It Takes," that chronicles that school's first year. The film premieres tonight in the PBS series "Independent Lens." You'll want to check your local listings.
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